It’s Not the Pulitzer…But Still, I’m Elated

Andrew Sean Greer, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner, recently mused about literary prizes in an interview by Esquire. He said he doesn’t like any literary prize that feels like competition or that interferes with the community of writers. I admire his sentiments. I loved reading Less, his comic novel about aging writer Arthur Less. I applaud his Pulitzer. But for the rest of us writers, the field of lesser literary awards means so much.

When one’s novels receive numerous outstanding reviews and readers rate them highly on various websites, one is grateful. After all, each positive remark is applause for all the years of dedication we put into each novel. But, when one’s novel is a finalist for a literary award—any literary award—it feels like a standing ovation. Greer said that, before receiving the good word, he had been coaxing a pug into polka-dot bloomers. When I recently opened my emails after spending a month in Africa incommunicado, I was too jet-lagged to realize that my novel Lucía Zárate: The Odyssey of the World’s Smallest Woman had been recognized as a finalist in the 20th annual Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. 

Foreword Magazine, Inc., hosts its awards program annually. Finalists represent the best books published in 2017. After more than 2,000 individual titles spread across 65 genres were submitted for consideration, Foreword’s editorial team determined the list of finalists. Winners will be decided by an expert team of booksellers and librarians—representing Foreword’s readership—from across the country.

The following morning, I reread the words of Victoria Sutherland, founder/publisher of Foreword Reviews: “Choosing finalists for the INDIES is always the highlight of our year, but the job is very difficult due to the high quality of submissions.” The great news finally sunk into my travel-weary mind, and I was elated. When the winner is announced on June 15, I’ll have to borrow a pug and squeeze it into some polka dot bloomers for good luck.

It’s Book Cliché Season Again

Ah! The giddy joy of book cliché season is upon us once more. We bookworms can openly make comments such as, “So many books, so little time,” without fear of being teased incessantly by friend or foe for promulgating clichés. This is the time of year we are given a free pass to run afoul with book talk, reading recommendations, book review madness, and general biblio-lunacy.

You might be wondering what jump-starts this biblio free-for-all? And the answer is simple:

It’s due to the end-of-year book awards and notable book lists, which have just been announced—and denounced.

The National Book Club whittled its finalists from 1,500 books to a list of five works in each of four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. If one disagrees with the list, one can get away with paraphrasing Louisa May Alcott: “I totally disagree with this list, the judges are way too fond of books, and it has turned their brains.”

When Carmen Maria Machado’s fantastical premises in “Her Body and Other Stories” make the final list, one can’t help but quote Stephen King and utter one’s agreement with a joyous, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

However, the announcement of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2017 can really fire up the engines of heated book conversation. It seems that all my bibliomaniacs are foaming at the mouth to voice their opinions. There are those who actually print the 38-page list and use a red marker to slash all the selections they despise. Their hearts and minds are closed to the majority of books on the list. If one quotes Carlos Ruiz Zafón and says, “Books are mirrors; you only see in them what you already have inside you,” they look puzzled. “Are you making fun of me or do you agree with me?” the book haters ask.

I take this as a cue and exit the book-bashing by uttering a feel-good quote by Jorge Luis Borges:

I sigh like a saint and say, “I have always imagined paradise will be a kind of library.”

I’m aware that this is a vague non sequitur cliché, but after all, I’ll be forgiven because it truly is the season of so many books and so little time.

A Literary Showdown: Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the Literary Giant, or Me, the Longshot

In an ironic turn of events, my novel Lucia Zarate: The Odyssey of the Smallest Woman in the World, is in competition against literary giant Arturo Pérez-Reverte for first place in the historical fiction category of the 2017 International Latino Book Awards. It’s becoming a modern-day David and Goliath match, a literary showdown between a seasoned lion and a scholarly underdog. The contrast is stark: In one corner is Pérez-Reverte, a giant best-seller, a contemporary Spanish author whose many novels have been turned into motion pictures and television series. In the other corner is me, a dedicated writer with award-winning novels, but still a wee minor player in the literary arena.

I’ve read many of Pérez-Reverte’s novels, and I’ve loved his complex plots and memorable characters. I’ve watched the movie versions of his novels, read his interviews, and admired his prodigious literary output. I’ve had nothing but admiration for his work—but like a mother bear with her cub, I’m becoming very protective of my diminutive Lucía Zárate. I don’t want Lucía to be dismissed like a pesky bee. I want my novel about her poignant life to stand tall, toe-to-toe, with the hugely successful Pérez-Reverte. I hope the judges read my novel’s reviews, which describe Lucía Zárate as “lyrical and riveting, crafted with admirable acumen, and polished to gem-like brilliance by a skilled wordsmith.”

As a former marriage and family therapist, I know that exhibiting good competitive traits is much healthier than harboring envy. I am grateful that my novel has reached this high level of recognition, I admire my opponent, and I am focused on the new opportunities this competition might bring my way. I will maintain a sense of decorum, and I will exhibit a positive attitude—but still—I sure hope to be the gracious winner of the award for Best Historical Novel 2017.

Bibliophiles Still Heed the Advice of Latin Philosophers

Serendipity strikes again––and I’m in bibliophile’s paradise once more. Just when I was starting to lose my spark for the long writing road in front of me, just when I thought about giving up on finishing my next novel, Blessings from the Edge, a chance stop last week at a historic bookstore in Montevideo, Uruguay, revived my enthusiasm for the writing life. I was not on one of my international book tours, nor was I looking to buy Spanish-language books. I was simply strolling through the old town, when a sparkling beam of light reflecting from the wavy bombé glass windows of the Librería Puro Verso beckoned me in.

I approached the tall windows of the historic art nouveau building and peered inside the Puro Verso bookstore. Inside were studious bookworms, deep in their respective reveries of skillfully arranged words that would soon jumpstart dreams of times long ago or fantasies begging to be read. These were my people inside the Puro Verso—yes, by common ancestry, but more significantly, by a common love of books; all of us bibliophiles were captivated by the sight of thousands of books on diverse subjects and in a multitude of languages. As I walked up the elegant marble staircase, a large sign in Latin stopped me dead in my tracks. It read: Veritas filia mendacii est.

I suppose I could have asked an employee to help me with the translation, but as I struggled with the Latin words, I kept on hearing the distant voice of the mother superior of my convent school spouting these exact words as a warning. Veritas filia mendacii est: Truth is the flawed daughter of time. This was a message with many meanings that demanded my reflection right there and then. My rumination on this message led me to one conclusion: I must continue to write Blessings from the Edge. I must follow the motto of the famous Flemish publishing beacon, Plantin-Moretus, which states, labore et constantia: by labor and constancy. Or, in contemporary lingo: back to work!

Mystery Unveiled in Four-Thousand-Page, Four-Hundred-Year-Old Ecuadorian Book

This blog post is for those of you who often ask me questions about ancient Inca mummies. You’ll recall from my novel Missing in Machu Picchu that the revered mummified corpses of the Inca ancestors were known as mallqui. You might also recall that the Inca ruler Atahualpa was held as a prisoner by the Spanish in 1532 until his followers filled a room with gold in exchange for his freedom. The Spanish grew impatient waiting for the gold to arrive from Quito, so they garroted Atahualpa.

But the saga continues to this day. The 400-year-old mystery of what happened to Atahualpa’s corpse, his honorable mallqui, and the gold treasures are on the way to being solved by Tamara Estupinan, an Ecuadorean historian who has methodically been solving this mystery for over thirty years. For her, it all started with a hunch about the connection of the word mallqui and the name of the present-day hamlet of Malqui—and its connection to a four-thousand-page, four hundred-year-old leather-cover book that included the will of Atahualpa’s eldest son.

Just picture her, hunched over the four thousand pages, reading detail after detail for the last thirty-plus years, until she started piecing together the puzzle of the location of Atahualpa’s corpse—and possibly also—the hiding place of his gold. This historian is a bibliophile’s true role model!

Bibliomania, Biblio Novel, Biblio Larceny…and Me


As an author of historical fiction, I am thrilled when life imitates art. In my 2013 novel, Missing in Machu Picchu, I wrote a chilling, cautionary tale about a treacherous hike on a fictional trail parallel to the famous Inca Trail near Machu Picchu. Later that same year, archaeologists uncovered a real-life trail, eerily parallel to this famous trail—and to the one in my novel. In this instance, life most definitely imitated art (my novel).

Now, I’m experiencing a bombardment of instances of serendipity that proves that art imitates life—even if it’s life from centuries ago. A few months back, I began writing a biblio novel with all the elements we bibliophiles adore. It has the dark elements of bibliomania, the intrigue of biblio larceny, and a scholarly tribute to a specific element of the printing history of Venice. Like all writers, I dug deep into this subject to make sure my topic’s originality and intrigue would appeal to my readers. For years, I researched my upcoming biblio novel, traveling from Venice to the cities of its ancient empire along the Dalmatian Coast, as well as Greece, Istanbul, and the Black Sea.

I’ve had nothing but the world of books on my mind for the past year. As I wrote about bibliomania in sixteenth-century Venice, I was barraged with current news items about bibliomania. Last week, I was writing about biblio larceny back in history when I stumbled upon The Guardian headline “Thieves steal £2m of rare books by abseiling into warehouse” ( I can’t wait to see what modern-day examples of serendipity come my way as I continue writing my sixteenth-century biblio novel, Blessings from the Edge (Publish Date December 2017).

Cyber Pirates Stole My Intellectual Property Again

Art Copyright Cecilia Velastegui

It’s too bad I have my two future novels already researched and outlined; otherwise I would love to write a scathing novel about cyber pirates. The timing couldn’t be any better. These are thieves who’ve stolen my novels—my intellectual property—and offered them ostensibly for a free download on the internet. However, if one is gullible enough to reply to their insistent free offers, the only way to actually download my works is to sign up with them on their constantly changing websites. The interested reader will be asked to fill out surveys, agree to other “free” offers, and divulge information that will further assist these thieves in overflowing their pirate chests. Cease and desist letters are a joke to these thieves, and they continue to sail the internet with impunity.

I don’t agree with recommendations that I pirate right back by directing my followers to these nefarious websites. This outlook is built on the flimsy premise that by cooperating with the pirates, authors can make these vile sites lead readers to my other works for sale in legitimate venues. I refuse to help the pirates wrap their illegal tentacles around more readers. There is no justification for cyber piracy. Selling or sharing illegal copies of novels is not only in contravention of copyright laws; it is harmful to authors in emotional, creative, and financial ways. Please remember that if you download an unauthorized free copy of one of my books, you are taking money right out of my pocket.

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca

There’s no better way to start 2017 than with words of wisdom from more than two thousand years ago. Because I have been fortunate to travel to 108 countries, I must agree with Seneca, the Roman philosopher. Every time I’ve traveled abroad, my mind has been bombarded with a kaleidoscope of details for future novels. In 2013, I returned to the Loire Valley to revisit places where I had lived as a college student. While visiting the château at Blois, I saw a small oil painting of what at a distance looked like a whimsical cat, standing upright and dressed in a pink embroidered dress with a white lace collar. Except this was not a cat. She was Antonietta Gonzalez, a sixteenth-century girl who suffered from what is now known as “hypertrichosis universalis,” a condition in which the whole body is covered with hair. Once I returned to California, I read all I could find on Antonietta and her entire family. This led me to research about other girls from the Hispanic world who had been displayed publicly for their unique physical traits. Their physical conditions had brought them fame—along with shame, disappointment, and tragedy. I will introduce you to each of these unique girls in the near future. In the meantime, I am finalizing Lucia Zárate, the odyssey of the world’s smallest woman.

Peruvian Mummies Still Talk


Peruvian mummies refuse to play dead. In fact, despite their now empty craniums and lifeblood that has long drained from their bodies, their hushed demands or whispers of love can still be heard by those who carry within them the mummies’ inherited DNA. But it is only a handful of their descendants who still honor the mummies’ enigmatic cries. Ages ago, the advice of Incan leader Manco Capac rang in all ears of the empire like a clap of thunder; even coming from a mummified sovereign, his powerful words rang true. Now the majority of the mummies’ descendants prefer to listen only to scientific and anthropological explanations for how and why the mummies continue to be rediscovered in glacial crevasses, musty caves, and cloud-swept volcanoes. Contemporary society listens only to scientific and anthropologic data pertaining to newfound mummies. We are intrigued to hear that the Ice Maiden’s stomach still contains the frozen food she ate and that she died of a blunt trauma blow. We listen to reports that tell us X-rays confirm the Chachapoya mummies of the Peruvian cloud forest had their internal organs removed, and we wait to hear about the methods used to preserve their skin. Although the scientific language of logic and reason has practically duct-taped the mummies’ own communication in the twenty-first century, the mummies’ visceral messages continue to hum in the bone marrow of a few of their descendants like a huayruru rattle shaking on a foggy night in the cloud forest or a lone pan-pipe tune ascending the frigid Andean peaks.

Every couple of years, the mummies’ faint echoes can still be heard as they resurface from their centuries-old slumber to remind their descendants that the venerable Incan ways must live on, that the tradition of paying respect to one’s ancestors demands adherence, that one must toe the line or face the consequences––no matter the time span. Since 5000 B.C., long before the Egyptian civilization mummified its rulers, Peruvian mummies have existed and lived side-by-side with those whose pulsating hearts and processing gray matter still flowed with energy, admiration, and loyalty for their mummified ancestors. It was this love and these fervent beliefs that kept the mummies alive in the collective memory of their descendants. In this exchange of love, respect, and energy, the living continued to hear the wisdom of their deceased elders––even if the mummies’ vocal cords no longer emitted any sound waves.

In the old days, before the Spanish raised havoc and tried to decimate the Incan civilization, the ancestral mummies––the mallquis––lived in glorious luxury in their own sumptuous palaces, dressed in gold, silver, and emeralds. Their attendants could still hear the mallquis’ commands and maintained them in the manner they were accustomed to when their hearts still pumped blood. The mallquis’ purple potatoes continued to be harvested, the black llamas sacrificed, and the holy huacas honored. They were paraded with pomp and circumstance during the important festivals, and although unspun cotton filled their cheeks, nostrils, and throats, themallquis’ sheer presence spoke volumes to the people.

The Spanish conquistadores did not hear a single word from the mummies, nor did they want to hear anything other than the tortured voices of their indigenous prisoners telling them where the gold, silver, and emeralds were hidden. Two steps behind the conquistadores stood the Catholic monks, hell-bent on demolishing the mallquis and anything else held sacred by the Inca. The monks wanted to extirpate the idols––the demons, as they called them. And, after they removed any valuables from the mummy bundles, only the cries of the mummies’ attendants and the centuries-old mummy ashes filled the air of the Spanish bonfires.

By the time American explorer Hiram Bingham arrived in Peru in 1910, the Incan shamans had escaped to the deepest cloud forest and into the most precipitous frozen peaks to hide the remaining mallquis. But money talks louder than any word, and some of the remaining mummies soon were escorted out of their hidden caves and onto a ship headed for the Ivy League and other East Coast institutions. The mummy bundles that had previously been cherished and loved by their attendants now were lying in the cold storage rooms of the American institutions, waiting to be prodded, inspected, X-rayed, and carbon-dated. For almost one hundred years they were disrobed of their finest vicuña textiles wraps, their skin, hair, and teeth examined to confirm, refute or speculate on this or that theory.

Then, in the 1990s, a new cry was heard from the highest peaks of the Andes Mountains: a frozen ice maiden had been uncovered—a mummy so perfectly preserved that the downy hair on her arms could still be detected, and a heart full of frozen blood waited to give further clues about diseases and viruses. Her physical perfection had earned her the privilege of being sacrificed in the capacocha ritual manner.
A few years later, the ever-present scavengers and thieves, the huaqueros, found dozens of Chachapoya mummies hidden for centuries in the cliff-side caves of the cloud forest. The only thing they heard was the potential exchange of money for their black-market commerce in mummies. This is the lot of Peruvian mummies: scientists hear only the siren song of logical explanation, and anthropologists seek to find gems of previously unexplained artifacts, but only a select few hear the mummies’ pearls of wisdom.